Michael Crichton is known as the author of many novels, including titles such as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Disclosure and Sphere. He was also active in film (eg: Westworld, Coma) and television (E.R.). He was medically trained and his books often reflect his scientific background. A contemporary of his, Robin Cook was also a doctor and author. It is worth pointing out the distinction between them – Cook was in his own words ‘a doctor who authored’ and Crichton was the reverse. As a literary writer, Crichton excelled at scientific thrillers and his books were bestsellers.
Crichton was also known for speaking out on issues which he felt strongly about. Often these arguments were presented in his novels and he was known for having a character in his books be an author surrogate. This, and his pride in the literary merits of his books, led him to take criticism more seriously than other authors. One such critique of his book, State of Fear particularly earned his ire.
The novel was a blockbuster best seller, selling over 1.5 million copies. It tells the story of eco-terrorists and a plot to commit mass murder to publicize the danger of global warming. The book is strongly critical of climate change and climate science. The success of the book is thought to have popularised (or even created) the ‘Antarctica cooling controversy’ since it argues that there is evidence which contradicts the idea of global warming. The novel used footnotes, graphs from real articles, and an author’s thoughts section to justify its stance. It didn’t matter that the authors of the main article Crichton cited did not agree with his presentation of their data, nor his conclusions (as it was not the conclusion they reached). As such the book stirred up a lot of debate and was subject to much criticism. One particular journalist, Michael Crowley wrote a scathing review of the book and attacked it’s central thesis. You know that meme about being nice to authors, otherwise they might put you in a novel and kill you? Crichton wasn’t above such petty revenge. He took it to the next level though…
In his subsequent novel, Next, he has a character who only appears in a few paragraphs and is inconsequential to the plot. Like Michael Crowley, the character is Washington based, a journalist and a Yale graduate. Unlike Michael Crowley the character is a child rapist with a small penis. Just in case readers weren’t getting who Crichton was trying to implicate, the character’s name is Mick Crowley. I’ve heard Andrea Goldsmith talk about adding a character based on a former boyfriend to her novels who flits into the story, says something stupid and flits out, but what Crichton did as revenge is on another level. So how did he hope to get away with it? Well, in 1998, Dinita Smith outlined an informal way to avoid libel when targeting a man:
“For a fictional portrait to be actionable, it must be so accurate that a reader of the book would have no problem linking the two,” said Mr. Friedman. Thus, he continued, libel lawyers have what is known as “the small penis rule”. One way authors can protect themselves from libel suits is to say that a character has a small penis, Mr. Friedman said. “Now no male is going to come forward and say, ‘That character with a very small penis, that’s me!'”*
Yep. If you want to avoid a libel suit all you need is to rely on the fragility of the male ego. This is only an informal strategy with no guarantee of success and Crichton’s use of it is both interesting and over the top. He could have at least gone with an anagram of Crowley’s name or perhaps better yet made it ‘Aziraphale’ (In Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, this is the demon Crowley’s opposite number from heaven, add in a first name meaning inverse or opposite and at least you’ve got a layer of obfuscation).
I had started forming the idea that Crichton’s Crowley created the notion of the small penis rule because each article I read about it mentioned Crichton’s use of it, but it definitely existed beforehand. Regardless, I find it an interesting piece of trivia and an infamous moment in literature.
Next time I’ll write about the time an author used a pseudonym and wrote a fantasy book so they could attack not an individual person, but the whole trend in their industry. To make sure you don’t miss it, please follow this website or subscribe to my mailchimp where you can have the convenience of email delivery.
*Dinitia Smith (24 October 1998). “Writers as Plunderers; Why Do They Keep Giving Away Other People’s Secrets?”. The New York Times.